Saturday, July 7, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Wow! What an incredible story this was! 

I first saw Eva Sheppard Wolf's Almost Free: A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia at the Society of Civil War Historians meeting in Lexington, KY back in 2012, at the UGA Press table. Their rep. was not at the table at the time for me to purchase it, so I made a mental note and added it to my wish list. It resided there for several years before finally I purchased a paperback copy for our library at work last fall. Last week I decided to pull it off the shelf and check it out while helping do an inventory of the Park's books. 

Using several primary source documents, the author was able to craft the story of Samuel Johnson and his family in Fauquier County (Warrenton), VA, and their struggle to attain freedom. As an enslaved man in Warrenton, Johnson was able to save up enough money earned through tips and overwork as a waiter at a town tavern to purchase his own freedom and gain an exemption from the state legislature to remain in Virginia. He was eventually able to also purchase his wife and daughter, but Johnson had to keep them as slaves since he did not want to leave all the fruits of his work in Virginia, as he was unsuccessful in gaining deportation exemptions for his family members. 

Johnson made eleven different petitions to the legislature over a number of years, all without success, despite the signatures and backing of influential member of the white community of Warrenton. Thus, due to race, the Johnsons were forced to live "almost free." 

Wolf puts it best when she writes: "That was the limit that Samuel Johnson's experience demarcated: black men in antebellum Virginia could become legally free, but they could not live freely. They could build friendships with white people and they could become important to their communities, but they were barred from claiming a place for themselves as men. They could not vote or participate in public life (except for working on the roads), and most important they could not protect and provide for their families as white men could. Samuel Johnson pushed against the limits set by law and society, but in the end he could only nudge them a bit. He could not break them down. His life on the margin, and pushing against the margin, undercut some of white Virginia's assumptions about race and social place, and his story challenges some of our own assumptions about how race worked in antebellum Virginia. But the greater point is that race worked. It took repeated effort, but in ways that mattered deeply race did effectively divide white from black - from birth to death." 

Another summary statement that Wolf makes and that I found quite insightful was: "The story of Samuel Johnson and his family also underscores how much we are all part of history, no matter how obscure or unknown we might be. We all work together in our daily lives to create the worlds in which we live, whether we think about it that way or not. We, like Samuel Johnson, like Spencer Malvin, like Lucy Elkins, make decisions about our lives, our identities, and our relationships in ways that help create our own moment in time. But of course our decisions are constrained, as Johnson's were, by the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. There was nothing Johnson could do to change the 1806 law, nothing he could do to stop Turner's Rebellion and its aftermath, no way to single-handedly alter Virginia's racial order. History makes us as much as we make history. And it is in that intersection, that dynamic interplay between an individual and his or her historical moment, that the mystery of the human experience unfolds. That Samuel Johnson left behind enough material to allow us to peer into his own reckoning with history is a circumstance for which to be grateful." Well, put indeed!

Wolf carries the Johnson family's story on to his daughter Lucy and her children's efforts to find true freedom, but I won't spoil the story for you. I'll leave it up to you read the book and gain a deeper appreciation for the struggles of free people of color and their perseverance in the 19th century. Don't make the mistake I did and delay reading this important book. I most highly recommend it.

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